Living with Medieval Things: Why We Need a Global Medieval Archaeology
By Kathryn Franklin
Global Journal of Archaeology & Anthropology, Vol.3:5 (2018)
Abstract: This essay argues for the critical relevance of medieval material culture to contemporary politics, and for the necessity of an engaged global medieval archaeology. Medieval things-material culture but also concepts and tropes-as they are imagined in the present hold a special place in the constitution of identity, and shape our ability to imagine difference in the world.
The fault lies in the stories we have told ourselves in the west about the medieval period, the way that medieval stuff has been used to fuel dreams of modernity, progress, and civilization at the expense of their conceived opposites. This essay ultimately argues that for the sake of ourselves and our future, medieval archaeology needs to lead critical medievalism in the reclaiming of our things, and the retelling of better, more diverse medieval histories.
Introduction: 2017 has demonstrated the continuing relevance of material culture, and of archaeology, to social life. In the US, as across the world, we saw our national and intimate politics play out through words and acts, but also in assemblages of things. The New York Times recently published “The Year in Stuff,” a fashion-oriented account of the last twelve months in innocuous objects-a pink knit hat, a white terry cloth bathrobe– put in the spotlight of national bodily politics.
In frankly archaeological ways, things were used to symbolize cultures, values, ways of living that were clashing in public-and this year we saw inanimate things, from TicTacs to Tiki torches, take to social media to earnestly protest being taken out of context. To be engaged in the social sphere currently means to be a spectator of participant in thing-politics, or the mutual mapping of power across people and their objects.